by Jeremy Morrison
A few moments into her comments, Sheranda Sheard paused. It looked as if she might start to cry.
“Are you OK?” asked Katrina Ramos.
“I’m okay,” replied Sheard, taking a deep breath.
The difficult moment wasn’t surprising. Sheard was there to speak about her son, Keshwon Stallworth, whose March 2015 murder remains unsolved.
“I wouldn’t put this on my worst enemy,” Sheard said, as she described how her son had been shot twice, then burned beyond recognition.
The mother also spoke about how her 16-year-old son loved to play football. And how his birthday was coming up soon.
“I think about Keshwon a lot,” she said. “I think about what he could be doing right now.”
Sheard was among several mothers who spoke about their loss during the August 6 Stop Silence in the Community forum at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola. The forum focused on area murder victims whose deaths remain unsolved. Victims like Devin Kennedy, who was found shot in the backseat of a car in November of last year.
“Somebody’s taken my baby’s life,” said Tammie Sims, Kennedy’s mother. “They took him over to Baldwin County and they left him there.”
And victims like Broderick Johnson, who was killed in 2011.
“I find myself crying lots of nights and days because of this hurt in my heart,” said Rosa Dukes, Johnson’s mother.
A central theme in each mothers’ comments was a mournful plea for people in the community to come forward with useful information. Information that could lead to answers and some sense of justice.
“No one wants to talk, no one wants to tell what they know,” said Dukes.
These sentiments were summed up by local Civil-Rights icon Rev. H.K. Matthews.
“That’s something you don’t put out of your mind, never, that you had a child to be killed,” Matthews said. “And somebody knows something.”
And like the mothers, Matthews also spoke to the sentiment within the community that law enforcement was not to be trusted. He acknowledged that authorities had provided ample reason over the years for people not to trust them —listing off a string of unsolved, perhaps brushed aside murders, and alluding to law enforcement-involved killings — but stressed the need for cooperation in the name of public safety and justice.
Matthews also offered a cautious nod to Pensacola Police Chief David Alexander, who he described as someone “who will not let things go.” Alexander was in attendance, and also addressed the gathering.
“This is a very critical conversation,” the police chief said.
Alexander — the city’s first African-American police chief — talked about how authorities wished they could inform grieving families that their cases were solved. And how officers working such cases recognize the proportions of the tragedy.
“You’re not suppose to take this stuff home with you, but you take it home with you,” Alexander said. “And when you have a young son or daughter, you see another side of this that you just can’t shake — that could be my son, that could be my daughter.”
The chief also indirectly deflected critiques of an inattentive or inactive police effort, talking about how “there are so many different dynamics to this problem” and how “imperfect people … make for an imperfect system,” but urged people not to view such a landscape as a reason to “disengage.” Progress on local cases, he said, hinged on information flowing forth from people in the community.
“Community policing in the 21st century is not some abstract thought, it’s not some philosophical approach, it is real problem solving,” said Alexander.
Rev. Matthews had made a similar point, but more bluntly.
“This business of not being a snitch is bunk,” he said. “It’s a lot of nothing.”
A couple of hours after the community forum, organizer Katrina Ramos reflected on the event. The tales of pain shared by the group of mothers had been heartbreaking. Rev. Matthews had been persuasive. But where were all the people?
“I think it went pretty well, my only concern is that we didn’t see more of the community,” Ramos said. “You end up kind of preaching to the choir.”
Matthews had also noted the sparse crowd inside the sanctuary — many of the people in attendance were either direct participants, members of the media, or individuals seeking political office. He reserved an especially blistering assessment for local ministers, whom were not in attendance.
“This building should be filled with people, standing on the outside, especially clergy people,” said Matthews, going further to say that it was “shameful” for pastors not to support their parishioners in times of despair, and that he “would not support those that would not support me.”
Ramos, an organizer with FromPensacola and a local Black Lives Matter representative, said that she realized truly addressing this problem would require action beyond community meetings.
“That’s going to take a different approach, and I’m ready for that,” she said.
One approach Ramos plans on trying is to reach youth in the community before they enter the considerably more dangerous years of adolescence. She notes that many of the individuals who lose their life to violence are in their late teens or early 20s, and suggests that connecting with kids in their formative years is key.
“Something in that age group, we are missing something, it’s a breakdown,” she said, adding that children must be taught the value of life.
This societal issue is not an academic problem to Ramos. She knew Devin Kennedy. She saw how the loss impacted his family. How it impacted his young daughter.
“Devin Kennedy was not just another person, he was a friend,” Ramos said. “I personally knew him.”
Ramos described a trip to the cemetery with a group of local mothers who’ve lost their children to violence — “I mean, they’re celebrating their children’s birthdays at a gravesite” — and said she decided to attempt to tackle the issue after seeing how much pain they were in.
Earlier, in the community forum, she had recalled meeting one of the mourning mothers. And how she couldn’t walk away.
“Her pain was my pain, because I have son,” Ramos said. “I can tuck my son in at night. She can’t.”